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VFX Apprentice Case Study Image

Connor McCann

Assistant Technical Director | May 2017

Connor is part of the NextGen Skills Academies apprenticeship scheme. Coming from a background in engineering, Connor started work at The Mill in 2016 in the ATD Apprentice role.

Can you tell our members what inspired you to enter the film industry?

There wasn't really a VFX shining light for me, it happened by chance. When I finished my A- levels I wanted to do an apprenticeship, because I didn't really want to go to university, didn't want the debt and I didn't want 5 more years in education, so I started looking for apprenticeships - engineering ones mainly, but I also wanted something creative. I applied to this, went to the interview in London - I had never been to London before. So I kind of fell into the industry really, I had never thought about joining the VFX industry and now I work in it full time.

What made you decide to apply to the Nextgen Academy?

I researched loads of apprenticeships and if it looked like fun I applied. That was my criteria, so many thousands of apprenticeships in different industries but this one found its way to me first.

What was your portfolio like, what work did you show them on interview day?

The other guys had such good portfolios, they had websites and had made these models and animations. The only thing I had were these posters that I made for my friends, which I had photoshopped for their own films and created wallpapers for them. I couldn’t show them to the panel because they weren't really appropriate for work but I told them about the posters during the interview and they picked up on that - but I didn't show them a portfolio, basically. Afterwards they told me what did make me stand out was that I performed really well in the group task before the interview. We had to build a tower out of newspaper and tape to hold and egg up, around 5 ft tall. They didn’t actually care if you managed to do that, it was about working in a team. There was a girl on our team and everyone seemed to be, not neglecting her, but leaving her to her own devices. So I went to her and brought her into the group, they mentioned that this was what shone for them.

Can you tell us about the applications and interview process, would you have any advice for those applying this year?

Make sure you can show something. The employers aren't going to know what's in your head, they can only know what’s in front of them.This is obviously a very visual industry, so having something to show like a portfolio or something you have modeled, textured, lit, rigged and animated or composited - anything is amazing. Even if you don’t think it’s that relevant of a skill, try and build it into the context. So, when I was working at parklife - which was my summer job putting on events in parks for families in Birmingham - you might think ‘what has that got to do with VFX’, plenty of things. I had to help people, I had to listen to instruction, things like that, so really emphasise all the good points in your favour. Boast as much as you want, just make sure you can justify it, so in any job speaking with customers it really relates to speaking with clients.

Can you tell our members about the area of VFX you are training in and the tasks you undertake?

Within the film industry the ATD role is very set, but at The Mill it’s a bit more like a jack of all trades. I think all the 3D generalist and TDs work on so many different things. For my role we’re writing it as we go along really. So I started with modeling and sculpting, with programmes on Maya for modeling and ZBrush for sculpting, though it’s generally used for painting details like wrinkles and pores. Then rendering and lighting. Recently I’ve been learning programming and even more recently I’ve started working with tracking, which is what Charles (the other NextGen apprentice) does. So I'm developing a really broad set of skills that really helps me understand where everything fits in the pipeline, the terminology and jargon.

What a typical day is like for you?

When I come in, the first thing I do is check my emails, see if I have any meetings to go to any catch - ups. I do quite a few catch-ups with my mentors, so they can check my progress. Update my blog, because we all need to keep blogs to document our progress. If I was working on something previously I would be getting on with that. There really is no typical day. Much of the work at the moment involves research, developing and advancing my skills via learning tutorials or my mentors will send me links and resources to check out and then they will set tasks that are relevant to the workplace. I’ve been working with Jacob, one of the TD’s here who does what my role will be in the future, he sets me things to script. For example, he will ask me to write a programme where you can click on an object and rename it, which is one of the tools that we have here anyway. So I have been going through recreating The Mill programmes which currently exist, which is great because I understand all of these things from scratch because I have written them myself.

What is the most important thing you have learnt so far about working in a professional environment?

I wouldn't say I have the best idea of what a professional environment is just yet as I haven't been put on an actual job yet. So I haven't had to work in an environment with people where i've had to share assets but from my experience, I would say it's just sticking with things. There are times when i've been presented with code that I can not understand at all, you can sit there and think about it,  sometimes it comes and sometimes it doesn't, so you get really frustrated. But there is always some around to ask, and if they don't know they will know someone who can help me. We have been really encouraged to meet people and introduce ourselves, so if I do need the help you just have to ask.

If you could recommend one book/website/publication about the VFX industry what would it be and why?

With all the resources online, there's so much you just have to look for it. That’s one skills i've advanced here; learning how to learn, how to really look for things, what you need to know to advance in a topic. It’s all very well watching tutorials but you really have to have a deep understanding if you want to advance to the next level. Also knowing what the problem is that I need to solve, then i can search for the answer more effectively. Some software I could recommend is: 

Tracking in 3D Equalizer
Modelling in Maya
Python scripting in Maya
Pluralsight - They teach anything creative and IT based although they are a paid subscription service.

What advice would you give to the school leavers, graduates, career changers who want to get into VFX, and what advice would you give to anyone wanting to take the same path as you?

I came in here with no portfolio, essentially. I got in with a bit of luck and a lot of passion, so if you're going into VFX you need to have that desire to do the job. I think the most important thing you can do is develop your skills and make sure you have something to show for it. It’s all good telling someone “I can do this” - but let me see it, let me see what you wrote, let me see what it does.

A lot of the time I have found myself watching tutorials, for ZBrush for example, after that tutorial I could make a replica of that tutorial but nothing else, I didn't have a deep understanding of it - i still don't - so I need to go back and refine my skills. So it's more than just following a tutorial it's about understanding and putting that knowledge into context, when you're not having your hand being held - you have to be able to do it yourself.

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